Kiefer – ‘Happysad’ (Album Review)

The West Coast, and more specifically, the LA-based jazz scene, has had a bit of a resurgence in the past decade. While the Brainfeeder label has dominated the headlines, Kiefer Shackelford has certainly cemented a place in defining the post-millennium Los Angeles jazz sound. While his work is undeniably rooted in jazz, his genre-spanning work is in many ways dramatically different than the music he was raised with.

“My dad put me up to the keys when I was a baby,” Kiefer says. “There are videos of me standing on the piano bench when I was barely old enough to stand.” Kiefer learned to play piano at a very young age, Monk’s “Blue Monk” being one of the first songs he learned. His father, however, was much more well versed in trad jazz, blues and boogie-woogie than the eccentricities of Thelonious Monk. Either way, jazz became a daily part of Kiefer’s life at a very early age, which in turn led him into a deep study of jazz in his teen years and ultimately led into a life of music.

Keifer’s first record, Kickinit Alone, was a somber, wistful affair. Kiefer describes the record as “90% focused on all types of sadness”. It was an album that foreshadowed the emotional, atmospheric “sounds of the city” ethos that Kiefer does so well. It was undeniably a strong record, but it felt like Kiefer was still searching for his voice in a geographical scene of so many strong voices. Happysad is where Kiefer becomes comfortable in his own mercurial, downtown brand of jazz/hip hop.

Happysad is an instrumentally dense record, one that crate-diggers in particular will find especially fascinating. But like the best modern jazz albums, this album’s appeal is wide. While large portions of the album are clearly improvised, Kiefer provides enough structure throughout the tracks as well as a relatively short running time of under 40 minutes that succeeds in capturing the attention of anyone who listens to modern urban music.

“Dope Nerd” is a fun, lazy funk throwback that, while fantastic, doesn’t prepare you for the sonic textures of the rest of the album. There is a specific contemplative moodiness that envelops the majority of the tracks on the album. So many of the cuts on the record evoke feelings of walking, head down, earphones on in a large (but empty) city at night. Maybe walking home from a party, attempting to snuff out stubborn painful memories that neither drugs or alcohol could.

This vibe continues throughout the album. The melody of the beautiful “Memories of U” creates an incredible wash of muted colors that further develops in “FOMO” and “AAAAA”. You can truly feel the longing present in each lingering note on the keyboard. This is an album with clear therapeutic qualities, which is not an easy feat, especially considering the relatively short album length.

There is a not-so-subtle intensity to emotionally dramatic instrumental works. When done properly, projects such as these can be incredibly moving. Kiefer has managed to make an album both culturally relevant and classic at the same time. We are truly in amazing time for jazz, as it seems that every week I tell people about another “artist to watch”. Let’s go ahead and add Kiefer to that list.

Kiefer’s Happysad is out now on Stones Throw Music.